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Broken Barriers in Spain This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


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My legs were shaking and my stomach was in knots. Leaving the warm embrace of my friends' hugs, I walked down the aisle of the cramped Mercedes coach bus, and climbed down the steps toward the mass of families awaiting our arrival. As soon as the rubber soles of my shoes touched the warm pavement, I felt the isolation. I saw a short man with a balding head and a scruffy beard approaching, two eager-looking sons by his side. Although I had never met them, somehow I knew they were my new host family. I didn't even notice my fellow travelers as they, too, were swept off in all directions by their new families.

“Me llamo Abraham,” my new host father introduced himself. Mohammed was his oldest son, and at 16, the closest to my age. The smaller son was named David, pronounced Dawud. Both were skinny, with short black hair and similar facial features; it was clear they were brothers.

On the walk home my host father tried to make small talk, which helped calm my nerves. “Tienes una gran mochila,” he said, pointing out the size of the green hiking backpack strapped tightly to my shoulders. “Eres un cocinero?”

“Sí, I like to cook,” I mumbled, thinking back to the contents of the letter I wrote to my family prior to the trip. I had rambled on about cooking, and how I wanted to learn to cook new foods. Now I was barely able to answer each question; my words seemed to stumble from my mouth as they fell out, incorrect and badly pronounced.

Finally reaching the street that I would call home, I stood on the doorstep of a small terracotta house squished between its neighbors. I met my host mother, a petite woman with black hair.

“Tienes hambre?” she asked. “Are you hungry?”

Trying not to be a burden I declined, saying, “No, gracias, estoy bien.” Yet we still had tea and Moroccan cookies. As we slurped the hot, delicious tea, I gave them their gifts. I had put together an album of pictures of me, my house, family, and friends. They wrestled over the album, all fascinated by the foreign places and concepts I had brought from Vermont. Seeing the snow, my mom's eyes widened. “Hace frio?” she asked. “Is it cold there?”

I thought about the amazingly comfortable spring, summer, and fall months in Vermont. The beautiful days seemed to cloud my memory, allowing me to forget the cold grasp of winter. I replied, “A veces, pero no es malo.” (Sometimes, but it's not too bad.) I knew my new family wouldn't really understand what it was like to live through months of below-freezing temperatures, with Nor'easters that made the already frozen roads even more treacherous.

When they saw the pictures of me playing hockey and lacrosse they were amazed to see something so strange. They had never seen a hockey rink, or someone in full gear. I saw their confused expressions and tried to explain what lacrosse was, quickly giving up, frustrated with the complexity of explaining in Spanish. I didn't realize how hard it would be to completely rely on another language.

Yet the embarrassment I suffered when I couldn't finish a sentence was nothing compared to when I met my neighbor later that evening. My family and I sat on the stone base of the doorway, enjoying the cooler night air that had descended from the mountains that towered over the dry desert. The elderly woman living next door came out and began speaking to us. Though I couldn't understand because of her thick Andalusian accent, I was able to grasp my family's explanation that I was their American guest. We both stepped forward to greet each other and I did the unthinkable: I stretched out my hand. Everyone paused. Silence fell. I couldn't believe I had forgotten the proper greeting. My family hurriedly explained that I was American and didn't know better. I apologized again and again as I tried to repair my error, going in for the proper double-kiss on the cheek. In the end we all laughed. But I was deeply embarrassed; it had been a long day and I really wanted to go to bed.

The first few days with my family went by as well as I could have expected, although I still struggled to communicate. When I woke on the first Saturday, and realized there was no group activity planned, I wasn't sure I would make it through the day. I dreaded the idea of being completely shut off from the familiar comfort of speaking English with my fellow Americans. Yet as the day progressed, my worry subsided and I started to have fun. That afternoon, Mohammed and I went out and played foosball. We gathered his other friends and went to a small market where we played game after game. I had been spending a lot of time with Mohammed and his friends, and we all got along – but I still couldn't understand them when they chatted together. Their accents and slang made it impossible to follow their words as they shot from mouth to mouth. Yet when we played together, words suddenly became clear, and although I didn't know their exact meaning, when someone made a nice shot or save, the burst of noise and excitement made the meaning seem insignificant. I loved the time we spent playing foosball together. It reminded me of home, playing on my dad's old fraternity table in my unfinished basement.

Later that day, one of the neighborhood friends joined us back at our house for tea. Victor, Mohammed and I sat around a small coffee table and sipped our steaming hot Moroccan tea. It was sweet and rich, and my host mother explained it was made with Pakistani spices. Victor and I started practicing our Spanish and English together; he would speak in English, and I would answer in Spanish. This symbiotic language session helped me tremendously. When either of us ran into a word we didn't know, we could simply stop and ask the other. Victor always noticed my confusion when someone said something I didn't understand, and would repeat it in English before I even needed to ask, “Que?”

We spent the whole night practicing my Spanish. By one o'clock, as we lethargically made our way home, I felt so accomplished that I carried on a conversation the entire way.

On the last day of my stay, I got out of bed early, and sneaked downstairs trying not to wake anyone up. I wanted to surprise my family with one of my favorite breakfasts, so I went down the street to the Marcadona to buy a loaf of bread and some cinnamon. When I got back to the house everyone was awake and following their usual morning routines. My mother was busy in the kitchen, putting on water for coffee; my brother and father sat on the couch entranced by the collection of '80s rock music that my host father played each morning. I joined my host mother in the kitchen and started to make French toast. I mixed eggs, milk, and cinnamon, while she watched my every move, trying to figure out what I was making.

When it was cooked, we all sat at the table. They hesitated, unsure of what to do with the new food. I lathered mine with butter and drenched it in syrup, and my brother followed suit. My mother and other brother were more cautious, and only dipped the corner in the syrup. At the first bite my mother shrieked “Que dulce!” I laughed as I watched them adjust to the overpowering sweetness of maple syrup.

There was no time for another game of foosball that afternoon. I spent the rest of my last day getting ready to say goodbye. As the afternoon approached, I put the final items in my bag, and fought with the zipper to get it shut. I walked down the now-familiar streets to the bus, accompanied by my whole family, with my huge bag strapped to my shoulders. When we arrived at the park where we had first met, I saw that all of Mohammed's friends had come to see me off. So I made the rounds, giving every one of my new friends and family a sorrowful goodbye before I joined the rest of the Americans on the bus. It was calming to be back in the comfortable sphere of English, but I was almost bored: words seemed too easy, and conversations flowed too naturally. My focus was not on my American friends. Instead, I looked out the window at my friends and ­family as they disappeared into the distance.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.





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